A visit to Northwestern University: CS for All, CS+X, and interdisciplinary learning

Dinner at The Stained Glass Bistro, where everyone’s looking at the camera except me.

I’m sitting in a cozy hotel room in Evanston, Illinois after a rich and riveting day visiting Northwestern University to visit faculty in Computer Science, Learning Science, Design, and Communication. My wonderful hosts, including Haoqi Zhang, Nell O’Rourke, Matt Easterday, and Liz Gerber, graciously put together an diverse and packed schedule, including an hour for me to speak about my work on effective, equitable, scalable learning of computing. I left impressed with the unique vision and perspectives of this growing community of highly interdisciplinary scholars, excited about the future of boundary spanning research in learning, design, and innovation.

My conversations were deep, diverse, and provocative. I talked to Jeremy Birnholtz about his fascinating work on the performance of identities online and we discussed how performance might mediate what people learn and where they learn it. Anne Marie Piper shared her students exciting new work on pair programming amongst people who are deaf and the complex multimodal communication media necessary for informally exchanging formal ideas about code. I talked to Haoqi about his vision for computational ecosystems that combine intelligent systems and social structures to tackle innovation and learning at scale, and his efforts to test these ideas by transforming his research practices and others. Mike Horn and I discussed the vast array of deep skills in abstraction, architecture, and design patterns that are rarely taught in computer science and the need for better theories about what these skills are.

At lunch with Darren Gergle, Sara Sood, and Robby Findler, we discussed the possible futures of K-12 CS education in the world and in the United States, and the potential impact for it on CS in higher education. Chris Riesbeck and I discussed all of the challenges of personalizing feedback at scale. Larry Birnbaum and I discussed the barriers to transferring general ideas and patterns in computing across domains. Kris Hammond and I discussed Northwestern’s vision for CS+X, which aims to transform other disciplines such as law, journalism, and other liberal arts and social sciences but in partnership with other disciplines, to steer how those fields evolve in positive ways. I also had great meetings with former UW Ph.D. student Nell O’Rourke about her exciting work on promoting growth mindset in computing classes, and Liz Gerber about the challenges and opportunities in growing interdisciplinary teaching and research communities.

I also had a chance to see two innovative practices around research. The Delta Lab showed off its impressive culture of peer support, encouragement, and design sprints, while Haoqi immersed me in the university’s system of undergraduate research experiences, in which students find special interest groups guided by faculty and doctoral students, supported by Haoqi’s Design, Technology, and Research course. The level of student interest and expertise was impressive and made me want to create more robust systems for sustaining undergraduate engagement.

My talk was well-attended, with over fifty computing and learning science faculty and students, bursting with smart questions. I talked about my lab’s work over the past three years on sociocultural aspects of learning in high school, adulthood, at work, and online, and described our numerous efforts to improve learning programming and programming languages. The audience probed deeply into both the content and substance of computing knowledge, but also the implicit links to learning science. The audience asked fascinating questions about computing education, most of which still have no answers. I encouraged them to pivot to computing education research and help us find out :)

Dinner turned to more personal conversations around lifelong learning of computing, including how we first learned to code and the social contexts that triggered and ultimately developed our interest in computing.

Yes, I found my charger!

Regretting that I didn’t get to spend more time in Evanston and the broader campus, I intentionally left my laptop charger in the seminar room so I could have a pleasant post-dinner walk back to the Ford Engineering Design Center to retrieve it. I found the Center buzzing with students designing, engineering, and schmoozing with Facebook recruiters. There was a tangible sense of devotion to learning throughout the space, even after all of the faculty had long returned home.

As someone who already works in a highly interdisciplinary place, its impressive to find another group of faculty pushing the boundaries of interdisciplinary research even further, and using design to do it. Many institutions are doing this, Northwestern is the only one I’ve seen innovating in both research and research culture through design. Moreover, it’s the only institution that does this by also leveraging foundational perspectives. After a decade of transformation at this renowned institution, I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings. Thanks to my hosts for the wonderful visit!

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